Tombs of Unknown Composers
Before 1900, “theater music” meant opera, operetta, or incidental music for plays (e.g. Grieg’s Peer Gynt). But with the advent of motion pictures and television, and their need for dramatically supportive soundtracks, theatrical music (as an expressive style) started to reach the ears of moviegoers and couch potatoes, not just concert, opera, and play goers. When Max Steiner, Alfred Newman, Herbert Stothart, and other conductors and composers of 1920s Broadway musicals moved west to create underscoring for Hollywood sound films (followed shortly by the opera composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold), they brought the legacy of Wagner and the theater to an audience of millions, making orchestral romanticism a lingua franca for the man in the street. Some commentators have viewed jazz as America’s real classical music. Others, like conductor John Mauceri, have publicly opined that studio-era movie music is the real new classical music. Perhaps there’s something to both views.
Yet paradoxically, some of these composers of soundtrack music, who are among history’s most widely heard composers, died totally unknown and unheralded. Take Leroy “Roy” Shield (1893-1962), a classically trained composer who was Eva Gauthier’s piano accompanist in songs by Arthur Bliss. He performed Milhaud, Holst, Bax, Casella, Ravel, Stravinsky, and Schoenberg in concert as a pianist, and in the 1940s assisted Toscanini with contracting the NBC Symphony. This same Roy Shield was also the composer of the deathlessly familiar “Our Gang” music for the Hal Roach studios! Millions upon millions of Americans have heard this music on television (as The Little Rascals) and could whistle the tunes of Roy Shield but would be baffled if asked to name him. Shield had an endless fund of catchy melody and a peculiar genius for expressing the joyousness of childhood in music; his Our Gang music is a unique, sentimental pastiche of early jazz, Dickens, and the Great Depression. IMHO he was an inspired composer, in the same sense that Sousa and Johann Strauss were inspired composers. Shield’s arrangements, with their sweet saxes and rollicking rhythms, were lovingly recreated by the Netherlands-based Beau Hunks Orchestra on Koch CDs in the mid-1990s. It may well be that Shield’s music was heard on TV by a wider audience than the radio audience of history’s two richest pre-rock composers, Richard Rodgers and Irving Berlin. But he’s forgotten today and was never rich.
Shield is not the only unknown soldier of theatrical music written for mass media. Appreciation for Warner Brothers cartoon composers Carl Stalling and Scott Bradley has been fairly well resurrected, but not for Philip Scheib, the composer of hours of original orchestral underscoring for decades of the Terrytoons. And what about Leon Klatzkin’s symphonic theme for TV’s 1950s Adventures of Superman—no subsequent Superman film scoring (with due respect to the remarkable John Williams) has ever topped it in my view. A prolific but little charted film and TV composer, Klatzkin was a conductor and orchestrator who, like Shield, had gotten his start composing for the Hal Roach Studios.
Shouldn’t music and cultural historians start to examine Shield and his brethren? Who’s your nomination for the most unknown well-played, well-heard composer? I’m not talking here about the armies of art music composers who died little known and whom posterity continues to ignore; that’s another subject. I’m talking about unknown composers of well-known music of post-1900 mass media. Caveat: Jingle writers don’t count, even though the jingle idea was invented by Wagner (viz., the leitmotif), because jingles are not through-composed, are brief, and rarely are scored for full orchestra.